What Is A Donabe Dinner?

SingleThread's donabe dinner is worth the overnight stay

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At SingleThread in Healdsburg, California, the team abides by a Japanese saying—kuuki wo yomu. "It means 'to read the air,'" says chef Kyle Connaughton, who opened the restaurant and five-room inn with his wife, Katina, just more than a year ago. In October, it received two Michelin stars, a clear reflection of the culinary team's hyper-thoughtful philosophies on seasonality (they follow not four seasons but 72) and, as evidenced by the aforementioned saying, a dedicated and innate approach to hospitality. "We like to be able to predict a diner's need before they even have the chance to realize it themselves," Connaughton notes.

Photo: Garrett Rowland

The practice is difficult enough to maintain in a room full of diners day in and day out, but add to that the wall of separation between staff and overnight guests (literally), and you're looking at an entirely new challenge. That's exactly the case with the venue's donabe dinner, a multicourse, in-room experience the team began offering to the inn's visitors this week as part of a two-night affair. (The other night includes dinner for two at the restaurant downstairs, plus concierge services with select wineries in the region.) 

The meal involves the well-timed entrance of service staff throughout the evening for all of the usual fine dining interactions: water service, wine pairings, settings, clearing. The first course, a series of small bites that "reflect the day in Sonoma," includes the best finds at Connaughton's farm and the freshest seafood the chef is able to acquire for that given day. Examples might include turnips simmered with kanpyo (a dried Japanese gourd) and pomegranate; a mandarin orange shell filled with kanpachi belly, orange curd and saikyo miso; or pickled oysters with fresh wasabi and olive oil.

A sashimi course follows, featuring Connaughton's favorite preparation of the day, slices of Kindai tuna brightened with Buddha's hand citrus, tosa-zu gelée and frozen amazake. Next up is the donabe hot pot, a dish Connaughton is well-versed in (he did, after all, coauthor a book on the topic). As such, there are options: seafood (Hokkaido-style with Dungeness crab, salmon, prawns and vegetables), meat (chicken and pork meatballs in sesame miso) and a shabu-shabu variation (with American Wagyu). Each pot is served with all of the fixings, including donabe rice and sides of pickled vegetables and condiments—all of which are built (in the most deliberate way) to share.

Photo: SingleThread

 "When you go to a fine dining restaurant—even if you're with other people—it can be a very individual experience," Connaughton notes. "But with donabe, it's not really an option—you're sharing, passing plates and experiencing it with others, which is entirely the point—to engage with those around you."

Nicole Schnitzler is a Chicago-based freelance writer who covers travel, food and drink. Follow her on Twitter at @write_to_eat.